African Intellectuals Celebrated through Music

After a highly successful showcase in KwaZulu-Natal, the Early African Intellectuals as Composers of Music project ignited the Cape during Heritage Month (September 2019).

The project a historical undertaking seeking to ‘wake up’ the African to their ancient music composition and intellectual excellence; as well as raise awareness of and educate about the birth and journey that has been travelled by compositions of the past while finding a place for them to be recognized and enjoyed in contemporary Africa.

Searching the Archives, Dr Thokozani Mhlambi

The project unfolded through a rich combination of intellectualism and creativity, kicking-off with a Panel Discussion, which took place at The Kitchen, in Woodstock on the 3rdof September.


Ms Ncebakazi Mnukwana, Stellenbosch University, Music

Dr Litheko Modisane, University of Cape Town, Media

Dr Thozama April, University of the Western Cape, Centre for Humanities Research

The Exhibition Concert took place later on the 27thof  September, at the College of Music, UCT. The cast for the performance included students from UKZN’s opera school and UCT music department, plus special guest features of leading musicians in Cape Town.

(from left) Modisane, Mnukwana & April.


Nobuntu Mhlambi, voice

Lonwabo Mafani, piano

Ludwe Danxa, electronic keys

Bulelwa Msane, voice

Nomonde Duma, voice


The Program was directed by Afropolitan Explosiv’s Creative Director, Dr Thokozani Mhlambi, who also performed on the cello.

Reflecting on the idea of performing historical African compositions: the composing of songs by early African intellectuals can be taken as a way of this class taking “measure of the impact of Western civilization upon the African world” (Abiola Irele) and transcending it, by the desire to make use of older African modes, which point to a far wider time of history than that circumscribed by colonial encounter.

(from left) Prof Njabulo Ndebele, Dr Modisane, Prof Christine Lucia, Dr April

The compositions of early African intellectuals such as Tiyo Soga’s ‘Lizalise idinga lakho’, Sontonga’s ‘Nkosi Sikelela’ as they are known and understood by communities today have become indigenous. Those who sing them in church meetings, stokvels and political gatherings do not refer to a written score, but rather rely on a collective memory which has developed and changed over time.

This became evident both in the Panel Discussion and in the Exhibition Concert, as in both instances when ‘Lizalise Idinga Lakho’ was rendered, the audience would join in chorus.

Audiences were treated to what: (1) Renditions from what Mhlambi terms ‘The Ntsikana Moment’ which honours and is a revival of Xhosa prophet, Ntsikana’s music. (2) Music from Reuben Caluza‘s 1920s ragtime, sung by UKZN Opera students. Caluza was the first African to receive a music degree in the country.

The piece called ‘i-Land Act,’  relates the tragic consequences of the controversial land act which many early African intellectuals, including Sol Plaatje and John L Dube, stood against.

Audiences also learnt about and indulged in the revived sounds of Enoch Sontoga and lesser known woman composer Nokutela Dube, first wife of John L Dube. These compositions are among those that were performed by Dr Mhlambi, and an ensemble consisting of UKZN and UCT music students.

Further developments are planned for the project, and will be announced, accordingly. Afropolitan Explosiv, the implementer of the project, is grateful for the partnership with the various organizations whose support contributed to the success of the project.

National Arts Council, Bayede Newspaper, National Institute of the Humanities & Social Science, Killie Campbell Africana Library, Archive & Public Culture Research Initiative (at UCT), Luthuli Museum. §